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Danielson targets repeat performance at Tour of Utah

One year after winning the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, 36-year-old American Tom Danielson is back to defend his title

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CEDAR CITY, Utah (VN) — Any race that tackles 753.8 miles and 57,863 feet of elevation gain in seven stages will be difficult to win. You need the legs. You need the team. The question is, who will it be?

Could it be a UCI WorldTour rider fresh off the Tour de France, like Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida)? A rider looking to fine-tune his form before heading to the Vuelta a España, which starts August 23, like Cadel Evans (BMC Racing)? Or maybe it will be someone who comes out from the shadows of the domestic professional scene and steals the show.

The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, slated for August 4-10, is the longest stage race in North America in 2014. And, arguably, it boasts the deepest field. Six WorldTour teams have made the trip to Utah, including BMC, Trek Factory Racing, Belkin, Lampre, Garmin-Sharp, and Cannondale, among a field of 16 total teams.

For the first time, three grand tour champions will be included among the 128 starters. Reigning Vuelta a España champion Horner returns to the Tour of Utah after a second-place finish a year ago. Joining Horner are two-time Giro d’Italia champion Ivan Basso (Cannondale) and 2011 Tour de France champion Evans.

Theirs to lose

There is no WorldTour team that views the North American swing of UCI races — the Tour of Utah, USA Pro Challenge, and the Tour of Alberta — the way the U.S.-registered Garmin squad does. The Pro Challenge may be its ultimate focus, as Garmin has had a rider on the overall podium all three years the race has been in existence, including an overall victory with Christian Vande Velde in 2012, but Utah isn’t far behind.

Last year, Garmin took the overall win with Tom Danielson, with young Australian Lachlan Morton also taking an epic stage win that put him into the leader’s yellow jersey for a time.

The team also boasts last year’s third-place finisher, Colombian climbing sensation Janier Acevedo, who rode for Jamis-Hagens Berman in 2013. A world-class climber, the 29-year-old Acevedo has finished on the podium at the Amgen Tour of California and in the top 10 at the Silver City Tour of the Gila, the Tour de San Luis, and the Tour de Suisse. In his first season at the WorldTour level, Acevedo made his Tour de France debut last month but was forced to abandon the race after 13 stages.

Though Morton has not made the trip back to Utah, Danielson and Acevedo return this year in Garmin colors, bringing perhaps the deepest GC squad in the race, with the American slated as its GC leader.

“The Tour of Utah is a really phenomenal race, and we don’t get too many opportunities to race with so many mountaintop finishes, so steep, at altitude like this,” Danielson said. “You can’t pass up an opportunity like this.”

When asked about the difficulty of the course this year, one that is a day longer and features some new, very tough climbs, Danielson reveled in the prospect. He has had some of his finest results on courses that contain steep climbs at altitude, such as the precipitous climb of Empire Pass on stage 7, now a hallmark of the Utah race.

“All of us like hard race courses. The more selective [it is], the better the racing. I’m particularly excited about the last three mountain stages,” he said. “I’m really interested to see this Powder Mountain stage — it sounds like it’s quite nasty. We don’t get too many opportunities to race a 15 percent climb at altitude … only at the Tour of Utah.”

After taking the win at the Tour of Utah last year, Danielson, 35, took third at the USA Pro Challenge but has struggled in 2014. He was third on the Mountain High summit finish at the Tour of California in May, but eventually finished 14th overall. He did not finish the Volta a Catalunya in March, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco in April, or the Tour de Suisse in June, and he was not selected for the Tour de France, a race in which he finished eighth in 2011.

Still, Danielson comes with the strongest team behind him. Ben King and Alex Howes finished the Tour de France a little more than a week ago — it was the first appearance by either American — and the pair will be joined by Acevedo, himself a GC threat, as well as Thomas Dekker, Phil Gaimon, and Gavin Mannion.

King and Howes left the Tour unscathed by the respiratory infections that plagued so many riders and will spearhead Danielson’s title defense.

“Those guys have big engines,” said Danielson. “They’re [excited] to be finished with their first Tour de France — you can just see it in their eyes being back in America looking at burritos and hamburgers. They’re on cloud nine — we have a really strong team and those guys will play a big part of it.”

The challengers

Horner, who finished second in Utah last year, is currently experiencing one of the most exhilarating seasons — for good and bad — in his long career. After an April training accident in Italy left him concussed and with broken ribs, he forged ahead with a solid ride at the Tour in July, finishing 17th. Still suffering from the effects of a bronchial infection that he picked up in France, he’s back in Utah to prepare for his Vuelta title defense. It’s a method he perfected last year, riding impressively to second after knee surgery hampered his training, and then went on to great success in Spain.

So how does the Tour of Utah fit into his plans to take a second grand tour victory at the age of 43? Horner made it clear that the Vuelta is his first priority. Ever the prognosticator, Horner saw three distinct scenarios.

“If I stay sick, I’ll shut it down and go home,” he said. “If I feel healthy but the legs aren’t quite recovered from the Tour, then I’ll continue, but I’ll drop off the leaders. If the form from the Tour — because I went into the Tour with great form, there’s no doubt about it, I just got sick — if the sickness clears and the legs I think I have are there, then I’ll go for the win. It’s as simple as … I could be driving home tomorrow or I could be going for the win.”

Another factor that could hurt Horner’s chances is the strength and familiarity he has with his team. Horner had never met any of his Lampre teammates for the Utah race until a few days ago when he arrived in town.

There are two other grand tour winners among the field gathered in Cedar City. Neither Evans or Basso, however, see themselves as a favorite.

A two-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, the 36-year-old Basso is in the twilight of a long and sometimes controversial career that saw him sidelined for the 2008 season for an anti-doping violation. Prior to his suspension, he twice finished on the podium at the Tour de France behind Lance Armstrong. Since his return in 2009, he’s been in the top-five overall at the Giro d’Italia three times, including an overall win in 2010.

In recent years, however, Basso hasn’t been very prolific. His last Tour de France was in 2012 and he finished 25th. This year he quietly placed 15th at the Giro, his last race before Utah.

“Well, I train well in these last months,” Basso said. “But honestly, it’s difficult to make a prediction because it’s a little surprise [to me], this altitude, the course is really hard. But what I want to do is try to stay in the front and see, day by day. If the feeling is not super for the overall, I just go less with the ambition and try to go for a good stage. But it all helps to get the good from for the Pro Challenge.”

Nevertheless, Basso admitted the race is a high priority for the team’s American sponsor Cannondale, so the pressure to perform will play a role.

“I want to do well in this race. Cannondale is really happy for this race, and they want us to go well in this race,” he said.

Likewise, Evans, the 2011 Tour de France champion, played down his chances for victory, instead looking ahead to future races as his main priority.

“I don’t quite see myself as a favorite,” the Australian said. “I came here well trained, focused, motivated to do well, but I’m here to get ready for the Vuelta. But I like to race at the front; results from year’s gone by show that.”

Dark horses

In Matthew Busche, Trek has a strong climber capable of a top result. The biggest question around Busche will be how well he’s recovered from his first Tour de France. The Wisconsin native and 2011 national road champion crashed several times in July, and also rode in several breakaways.

“There are definitely moments where I’ve been wondering what the heck I’m doing here, thinking, ‘I don’t deserve to be here. Why am I turning myself inside out to just try to hang on? How are these guys so much better than me?’” Busche told Velo.

Carter Jones (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) has steadily risen through the ranks of the Continental racing scene to become a favorite at any race that involves abundant climbing. Last year, as a member of Bissell, he won the mountains classification at the Tour of California and was eighth overall at both the Tour of the Gila and the Tour of Utah. He climbed to first overall on the final stage of the Gila in 2014.

Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) is a rising star of the WorldTour and another rider who has garnered his best results in races with ample climbing. His 2014 season has seen him compete among the world’s best, taking seventh overall at the Giro d’Italia and then rise to fourth overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné on his way to winning the best young rider classification.

Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare) has some unfinished business with the Utah race, having lost his overall podium position on the final day of racing in 2013.

“I’m definitely champing at the bit to get on that final podium. I got a stage podium last year, but we’re definitely looking to up that this year,” Euser said.